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Ask an expert: do I need to wear sunscreen in the winter?

06/12/2022

While many of us only associate sunburns with summer rays, there is still a risk of sun damage during the colder winter months. VCH dermatologist Dr. Harvey Lui shares his recommendations on staying sun safe year-round.

Q: How am I at risk for sun damage in the winter? 

A: People generally associate the sun with warmth, particularly during the summer months. This is because the sun emits infrared rays and visible rays that make you feel warm and make everything look bright. 

There are also ultraviolet (UV) rays that you cannot see or feel, which include UVA and UVB rays. The risk for sun damage comes from these invisible UV rays rather than the warming infrared rays. When it is sunny in the winter, there is still a lot of UV light that is able to reach your skin. The high energy from those rays is enough to break chemical bonds in your DNA and other skin molecules, which increases your risk of getting skin cancer and premature ageing.​

Q: When and where am I most likely to get a sunburn in the winter? 

A: The winter season is often associated with outdoor winter sports, such as skiing and snowboarding, which put you at a high altitude. Not only is the light coming from above, but it is also bouncing off the snow below you. In this way, you are getting a double dose of light — and potential risk for sunburns — especially if it is sunny outside. ​The higher you go up a mountain, the more intense the UV rays become. 

Time of the day is also an important factor to consider. Because the days are shorter in the winter months, we recommend people be especially mindful between 10am to 2pm on a sunny day. ​

Q: What is the best sunscreen to use in the winter?

A: The best sunscreen to use is the one you are willing to put on your skin! We recommend that you use a sun protector factor (SPF) of at least 30, but preferably as high as 50 or 60. When you apply it, it should be thick enough that you see a bit of whiteness on your skin. ​​

Read the full Q&A at vchri.ca for more science-based and myth-busting insights on how to protect your skin from the sun.

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